Updated: Mar 1, 2020
Bryher seems far, far away. Another world that I have left behind for a few days to return to the mainland. Here though, on the edge of Dartmoor, are new opportunities to seek wild swimming of a different kind. Rivers! Rivers of wonderful clarity and life, rivers of tumbling waters and shaded pools.
As my Mum and I walk down through great woodlands of oak and beech, their dead leaves crunching underfoot into the deep humus, she tells me of when, as a twelve-year-old girl, she and her school friends would walk out from Tavistock into the woods and down to the river Walkham, to swim in the Walkham Pool.
This is a tale of my mother’s childhood that has never been told to me and I love the idea that I can swim in the same wild waters as she had. So we make our way through the dappled light and shade. The River Walkham running alongside us, on its journey from its head, high up in the wilds of Dartmoor. Down through the steep valleys, topped by the beautifully bleak granite of Great Miss Tor, Roos Tor and Great Staple Tor. Past the remains of tin mines and quarries that were once the working heart of the moors. Through villages and farmland and onto Plymouth, where it meets the sea on the south coast of Devon.
We arrive at the pool, a short stretch of river, about fifteen meters long, with a small waterfall at either end and surrounded by trees that arc over the water’s surface. The bare branches, send out vein-like shadows along the ground which is covered in gnarled roots and damp mossy banks.
The river is loud. Water rushing and gurgling over the rocks, plunging into the deep pools below. Carefully I step down to the edge of the bank, over the slate like stone which is covered in an orange ore-like sludge, seeping out from the earth. It is slimy and slippery underfoot. The shelf of stone creates a perfect platform into the deep pool, a place to sit momentarily before casting out into the bottle green water. The cold catches my breath ever so slightly but it feels warmer than the sea, and silky smooth, no salt in my nostrils and on my skin.
I breaststroke against the current towards the small waterfall at the top end. The noise grows louder and the water becomes fizzy and bubbling like a bottle of shaken up champagne. It tickles my skin and I can’t prevent the widest grin from lighting my face.
The air smells of earth, damp leaves and cool freshness. The quick water flows dark and smooth over hidden rocks, thickly covered in saturated moss. I turn and glide, a free rider in the flow. Three times more I turn and swim upstream and float down, Buddy, our dog, plunges in and swims and plays too.
An image of my Mum as a young girl, leaping and swimming and enjoying such freedom and fun in this same spot is in my mind. It also reminds me of an afternoon when I was quite young, when, with family friends we swam and played in the same river further up the valley. Even now I can remember the cold, the bubbles and the thrill of being in the water.
How magic these rivers are. For generations of people they have provided beauty, coolness, and fun. Whether you walk alongside them or swim within them, and they will continue to do so for generations to come.